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Influenza A H1N1

    May-10-2009

Before we go into the details regarding the fatal impacts of a swine flu and bird flu mix, it is important to know the characteristics of each of these deadly forms of infections that have been ravaging many parts of the world. Incidentally, though bird flu is known to be fatal for over 60 per cent of its human preys, the infection does not spread from a victim to a healthy person with ease. On the other hand, only a small number of people infected by swine flu actually succumb to the contagion, but it has the ability to pass from one person to another by means of a sneeze or a handshake.

What are the consequences if the two viruses combine?

Scientists all over the world are agonized to imagine the circumstances that may arise following the combination of the two deadly viruses. They are of the view that there is a great possibility of the two viruses come across each other in Asia where bird flu has already assumed epidemic proportions. They apprehend that if the two viruses meet in such a scenario, the combination will give rise to a new infection that will possess all the harmful properties of the bird flu as well as the swine flu. It will not only be extremely infectious, but also fatal and spread across the world posing a major hazard to human life.

Although the scientists are still uncertain regarding the probability of the two deadly viruses meeting, they point out that the new swine flu breed has proved to be able to proficient in seizing the evolutionary beneficial genetic substances from other flu bugs. It may be noted here that the new swine flu breed is a combination of pig, bird and human viruses - something that has never been seen earlier. According to Dr. Robert Webster, the well-known virologist whose team of scientists found out a predecessor of the contemporary flu bug at a piggery situated in North Carolina in 1998, the swine flu virus seems to possess the unique aptitude to collect the genes from other bugs.

So far, the present breed of swine flu that is formally known as influenza A H1N1 has already infected over 2,500 people across 26 countries. As mentioned earlier, though people may be infected by bird flu from fowls, it is unlikely that the bird flu virus called H5N1 will spread from a victim of the disease to a healthy person easily. Since the bird flu virus began devastating the poultry population in Asia in the latter part of 2003, it has claimed no less than 258 people across the world. After a long lapse in the spread of the malady, recently the World Health Organization has again reported to fresh human cases of bird flu. Of the two cases, one has been reported from Egypt, where the patient is said to be recuperating. The second case has been reported from Vietnam, where the patient has succumbed to the infection. These two cases are worrying since they remind us the fact that despite all efforts, it has not been possible to completely eliminate the H5N1 from the face of the planet.

Concerned over these two new human cases of bird flu, the World Health Organization Director General Manager Margaret Chan has counseled the top health officials of Asia not to give up their exercises to monitor the H5N1 virus. She was addressing the Asian health authorities in a video conference from Bangkok recently. Margaret Chan has further cautioned the Asian health officials that still people do not have any conception as to how the H5N1 virus will act under the strains of epidemic conditions.

It is important to note here that for a long time, scientists have been apprehending that the bird flu may any day transform in a different variety that will spread among people with much ease. The apprehension has its genesis in the fact that all the earlier three flu epidemics - the Spanish flu in 1918, the Asian flu from 1957 to 1958 and the Hong Kong flue from 1968 to 1969 - were all related to birds. However, some scientists are of the view that to a certain extent, pigs were also responsible for the spread of the Spanish flu in 1918.

According to Dr. Robert Webster, the leading virologist who is associated with St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., now the people should once again be concerned about bird flu. He said that while bird flu is still an endemic in different regions of Asia and Africa, several cases of the new swine flu strain have been validated in Hong Kong and South Korea by now. In an interview with The Associated Press, Dr. Webster expressed grave concern over the possible consequences if the H1N1 virus reaches the hotbed for H5N1 in countries like China, Indonesia and Egypt. Stating that such a situation would cause numerous problems, Dr. Webster warned that henceforth the scientists would have to meticulously as well as actively observe the new developments.

On the other hand, the spokesman for the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dave Daigle informed that the scientists at this institute are unusually active struggling to comprehend the swine flu bug itself, and so far did not have any time to release some of their members to examine the consequences of a possible combination of bird flu and swine flu.

A flu expert at the Hong Kong University, Malik Peiris is of the view that the more urgent concern is that with the onset of the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, there is a distinct possibility of the swine flu bug combining with the common flu viruses. He said that although there are ample indications of such a possibility, scientists are still unsure of the outcome of such a combination of swine flu and other regular flu bugs. Talking about the spread of the present swine flu strain, Peiris said that it all began with a swine flu bug passing on from a farm laborer in Canada to infect around 220 pigs. Although the infected farm worker as well as the pigs managed to recover from the effects of the flu, the incident clearly demonstrated the ease with which the swine flu virus is able to spread from one species to another.

According to Peiris, the swine flu virus first passed on from a man to pigs and then it may probably leap back from pigs to human beings. This way, there is a possibility of new varieties of the flu to take place among the viruses in pigs. He further said that although the bird flu virus has not set up in the pigs so far, there is all likelihood that things may change any time. Peiris said that till now H5N1 or the bird flu virus has not been confirmed in pigs and in case it does establish itself in pigs then both the bird flu as well as swine flu bugs are to be found in pigs in Asia and this would really turn out to be a grave situation giving rise to a serious concern.

Meanwhile, Michael Osterholm, who is a specialist in contagious diseases and is associated with the University of Minnesota, said that presently flu experts are talking about the situation and added that he is still to come across any definite indication that would make him consider the possibility of a bird flu-swine flu combine. According to Michael Osterholm, all things associated with influenza are a sort of vast speculating pastime since all the rules pertaining to it are held by nature and no one has any idea about them or what they are. Hence, he says that anything is possible in such a situation. In fact, no one has any proof to establish that a specific variety or species is more prone to acquire H5N1 than any other variety present on the planet.

The views of Michael Osterholm on the subject notwithstanding, Dr. Robert Webster has said that a group of scientists are in fact deliberating on the idea to put the two deadly viruses together in a highly protected laboratory to find out what a mixture of bird flu and swine flu bugs would actually appear like. He further said that experiments of this nature have been conducted at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) where scientists combined bird flu and cyclic or common human flu viruses. It is interesting to note that these tests resulted to very weak products. On the other hand, CDC spokesman Dave Daigle informed that the question would be looked into by the agency at a later date.

It may be mentioned here that during his career spanning over four decades, Dr. Robert Webster has done pioneering work on swine flu as well as bird flu. He has pursued the development of the present swine flu breed from a virus that led a few people working in the North Carolina hogs to fall sick owing to a viral infection that contaminated one person after another across the globe. In addition, Dr. Webster is intimately associated with the international endeavor to investigate the future effects of the swine flu bug. Although swine flu has claimed 45 lives in Mexico and two more in Texas, thus far it has not demonstrated to be fatal to other places of the world. This has given rise to some condemnation of the World Health Organization's cautions regarding the possibility of a swine flu epidemic. These critics are of the view that the WHO's warnings in this regard has been exaggerated. Contrary to this, Dr Webster is of the opinion that any move to take the threat of swine flu epidemic too lightly may prove to be a blunder.

According to Dr. Robert Webster, the threat of a possible swine flu epidemic has never been overstated. On the contrary, it is like a puppy in its formative years and growing gradually. He cautioned that the swine flu bug has the entire human populace worldwide to strain in. The bug has just occurred and presently all that the scientists need to do is to observe it. Wrapping up his views on the possible effects of the swine flu virus, Dr. Webster predicted that it is possible that the bug may turn out to be a weakling and eventually vanish from the face of the globe. Alternately, there is also the possibility of it turning spiteful, he concluded.

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